Should women play music with men?
On some bright day around 750 years ago, Rumi turned around once. “Why did you do that?” a student asked. Rumi replied that he wanted to unite with God. This ineffable response inspired the Mevlevi order of whirling dervishes, who turn around and around to the accompaniment of beautiful music, played on oud, ney, kemencheh, and drums. Their ceremony, or sema, is renowned throughout the world as one of the most fascinating religious ceremonies, and as a symbol of all that is unique and wonderful about Turkey.
The fact that Ashley, Robin, and I would join male Sufi musicians to accompany the sema was undoubtedly historic, so I asked our friendly academic if the sema had been widely publicized. He looked uncomfortable. In fact, no one knew about it, he said. After I pressed the point, he finally agreed to help secure some publicity. Still, I was puzzled that nothing had been done to announce such a historic occasion.
We met the musicians in the lobby of our hotel and proceeded to the conference room, unpacking our instruments as they gave us some sheet music. The Sufi music was like a breath from another star. The most common meter was 28/4, and what looked like a bewildering array of quarter-tones on the page was even more complicated, because of the slides and shakes required at hard-to-predict moments.
Despite this, we acquitted ourselves well, and the musicians all smiled and said, “Bravo.” I told our translator to tell them that at this point, the two main issues would be getting the three of us to master the strange new scales, and getting enough publicity to ensure a large audience. After the translator relayed my comments, a little silence preceded a tumult of Turkish conversation.
There would be no publicity, we were told. The sema would be open to an invited audience of 200 people, because otherwise, too many people would be offended. Choosing my words carefully, I said that I could imagine three possible reasons why some people might be offended: that we wanted to use the ceremony to raise money for Kimse Yok Mu; that we were American; that there were women in our group. I asked them which reason was the culprit, though I already knew the answer.
“For seven hundred years, women can do the sema separate, and men do the sema, but male and female musicians, never. It happened once or twice recently, yes, but there was so much criticism.”
So this was it: the conversation I had feared and dreaded ever since the Turkish Cultural Center and I had agreed, in excitement, that Ashley and Robin would make history. I had imagined this conversation and tried to prepare for it, but I had imagined trying to convince a chauvinist that women deserved to be the equals of men. I had not imagined the conversation with a group of tolerant men who were simply scared about the reaction our decision might provoke.
I also hadn’t imagined how hard it would be to make a point and to negotiate while waiting for everything to be translated, and while trying to tune out the hubbub of Turkish conversation that our request prompted. We went back and forth: I suggested a 40-minute sema, the leader of the musicians countered with 10 minutes. I asked for twenty minutes, which appeared to be fine, but then there remained the audience question.
Suddenly it seemed that the leader did not want any audience at all, except for a few musician friends he would invite. He offered a public performance without dervishes, or a private performance for ten people with dervishes. They would be happy to perform music with female musicians, he said, but the sema is a form of prayer, and it would be too offensive to too many people at this time. I tried every argument in the book, always while remaining respectful and polite. But it didn’t look like a compromise was in order, so I suggested that the Sufi musicians hear a short performance now.
“We will now play the second movement of a piece by Dohnanyi, a Hungarian composer,” I said as the three of us adjusted our music and music stands in front of the semicircle of Sufi musicians. “It begins with a beautiful melody that I will play, and ends with the same melody, played by Ashley. The exact same melody.” I hoped they would understand that the melody would be just as beautiful when played by a woman as when played by a man. I asked them only to consider our request and not to make up their minds just yet.
Though Ashley and I did a good job with the melody, overall it was not our best performance. We were all a bit nervous, knowing what was at stake. Would the Dohnanyi Serenade succeed where words had failed? Certainly, we made music as equals. Would that be enough?
Afterwards, it was time for lunch. The debate continued with our friendly translator (the academic) and a local businessman who hosted the lunch. According to the translator, the businessman asked if Americans really think all Muslims are terrorists. I’ve gotten this question in every Muslim country I visit, and I decided some honesty was in order.
“No, we certainly know that Muslims are not all terrorists, and have great respect for you,” I responded. “On the other hand, we’re not thrilled about women not being allowed to play for the Sema.” Ashley and Robin laughed; I wondered if even they thought I was pushing it. The businessman was not thrilled with my observation, and a lively but civil discussion followed, touching on the Koran, Rumi, the Amish, and even Rosa Parks.
"Would there be a problem if just William played with them?" Robin asked. The answer was immediate. "No." "And there would be lots of publicity?" "Yes, no problem." Ashley looked at me inquiringly. I shook my head. That option was not on the table.
Ashley, Robin, and I later had a great discussion. Had I gone too far? Was I overstepping the bounds of cultural diplomacy and trying to impose Western values?
In my opinion, I was not. Cultural exchange must go both ways. I am not asking that they incorporate local Turkish women into every sema conducted in Konya from here on out. I ask only that they extend us the courtesy of allowing us to practice our values in their country, just as we should grant them the freedom to practice their values in ours.
As of this writing, what will happen on Monday is a mystery. I do know one thing, though. I know that as long as it is within our power to do so, Music for the People will come back to Konya. This year, maybe our sema will be for an audience of two people. Maybe we’ll come back in a couple years, and 20 will hear us play as the dervishes whirl.
Each time we come back, we will bring a group of both male and female musicians. This is not a gesture of disrespect, nor do we mean to offend. But if the ceremony is truly meant to honor God, then the only criteria for picking musicians should be their ability to render beauty in sound. We come to Konya to show our respect for Rumi, for Turkey, and for Islam, but we will not sacrifice our respect for our own values to do so.
In the words of Rumi, “Come, come, whoever you are.” Women included.